FOR GOING on 35 years, baklava has been a staple of the Greek Food Festival here in Little Rock. But of course, if you’ve gone, you know that. You know the sweet treats virtually fly off the tables, hoovered up by sticky-fingered attendees who come by the thousands to the storied festival—and you know there’s never enough to go around. More precisely, as Peri Leake, who’s worked the festival since the mid-’90s, says: “We can’t make enough.” It’s a lesson that’s been played out repeatedly since 1984, the first year they held the festival, after the church moved from downtown to west Little Rock in June 1983. That first year, they made around two-dozen pans. Nowadays, knowing the demand to be all but bottomless, that number’s increased precipitously over 3 1/2 decades. Some 200 pans of baklava—each of which serves 90 to 95 pieces—have been made since they got started in late January, (that’s not including the 80 pans of chocolate baklava, mind you, a festival favorite for the past 10 years). If you’ve ever wondered how a small, up-to-10-volunteer-strong staff makes tens of thousands of pastries, look no further than the photos that follow. If you’re wondering why they submit themselves to this—well, as Peri says, “It’s a labor of love.”
1. Before anything else, the folks behind the baklava spend two full days grinding nuts—walnuts, almonds, pecans—which are then mixed in a combination of cinnamon, sugar and a secret homemade syrup (the same recipe has been used since 1984). By the end, they have some 280 bags ready for baking—one per pan of baklava.
2. To clarify the butter, each canister—filled with 12 to 15 1-pound sticks of butter—is left in the ovens overnight and melted by the heat of the pilot light. In the morning, the milk solids are skimmed off the top, and the warm, clarified butter is then brushed onto the dough.
3. All told, there are 36 layers of phyllo dough in each piece of baklava. For the first 12 layers, each sheet is placed on the pan and brushed with butter. The second dozen layers go on two-by-two, with a layer of nuts (and, in the case of chocolate baklava, chocolate chips) between each. The final dozen then go on, with an extra-generous brushing of butter on each layer, which then seeps into the rest of the baklava.
4. Using a template, the bakers cut out a tessellation of 90 to 95 pieces of baklava per pan. The corner pieces, which are a little bit larger, are only sold when the rest of the baklava’s been sold. Any scraps left over are used in sundaes.
5. Thanks to the many nonconvection ovens in the church’s kitchen, 21 pans of baklava can be cooked at one time. Each pan is baked for one hour, then covered with foil and baked at a lower temperature for another hour, before finally being allowed to cool on baking racks overnight.
6. This year, when everything was finished, the volunteers working in the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church’s kitchen had made 200 pans of baklava and 80 pans of chocolate baklava—more than 18,000 and 7,200 pieces, respectively—divided in six-packs, four-packs and assortments. Once they were through, however, there was still no time to rest: Now they had to start on the cookies.
The 35th Annual International Greek Food Festival will be held May 17-19 at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock.